29 Oct 2014

US Road-trip - Zion, Utah

On my visit to Utah in 2005 I spent about 2 hours at Zion National Park - nipping in on my way from Kanab to Las Vegas. I'd hiked to the Emerald Pools and loved it, but needed a lot more time to do the enormous park justice (no sh*t!). This time round I booked for us to stay 2 nights in Springdale, a small town that lies at the edge of the park, so that we had a full day and the afternoon of our arrival to explore.

We drove from Page, without stopping along the way at a few spots I'd previously hoped to visit (Buckskin Gulch Trail, for example) as it was another clear and hot day and we didn't feel like a 3-hour hike in the open desert. Sadly the Wave was out of the question (I'll have to book 4 months in advance next time or try my luck with the daily lottery in Kanab). Instead we thought that we might try renting ATV off-road vehicles at Coral Pink Sand Dune state park. I'd googled it before we set out from Page, but couldn't quite work out how to book anything, or where from. We drove close to the turn-off to the dunes, but decided that it was unlikely that we'd be able to just rock up and find an operator. We stopped in a hotel at the turn-off from the 89 to the Mount Carmel Highway road to Zion (part of the Route 9), who suggested we try at a place called the Ponderosa Lodge. We followed their instructions and headed up the pretty North Fork Road. When we got there we were disappointed - but not very surprised given that we were miles away from the dunes now - that they only ran ATV trips on the nearby land, and not down at the Coral Pink Sand Dunes. It was a bit of a wasted journey, but the drive was pretty, passing some fields full of beautiful soft grasses blowing gently in the wind.

We went back to the route 9 and continued on to Zion. Although I'd driven that route in 2005 none of it seemed familiar at all; I had no recollection of the impressive tunnel and huge switchbacks below it. The scenery before the tunnel was spectacular, with huge stripey white and orange cliffs, checkered white hillsides and river valleys. There were many trees and shrubs; it was a lot less deserty than where we'd come from.

We stopped a few times to admire the views, bumped into our German neighbours from the cabins at Monument Valley, and headed through the tunnel without having to wait (it can sometimes take half an hour or more). From time to time there were windows, cut out of the side of the tunnel, giving a view down into the canyon below - quite an impressive engineering feat for 1927! Once out of the tunnel there were steep cliffs above us and a series of long, steep switchbacks below us. On the cliffs we could just make out a few rock-climbers and abseilers. I remembered seeing some on my previous visit too.

Not far from the foot of the switchbacks we reached the turn-off that led north into Zion Canyon (the "good" bits of the park), where only those staying at the lodge can drive; otherwise one must use the park shuttle services. We continued on and headed out of the park to our hotel on the outskirts of Springdale down the main street, which was crammed full of gear shops, restaurants, gift shops and lodges. I chose our hotel, the Driftwood Lodge, for the promise of a decent view of the mountains from our balcony - and wasn't disappointed! Sometimes it's worth paying just a little extra.

We had a coffee on the balcony and noticed the distinctive smell of marijuana - the people in the room below us were serious smokers - they must have been lighting one joint after another! We wanted to do a quick sunset hike, so headed back up to the park, left the car at the visitor centre car-park and set off up the Watchman trail. It was a pleasant walk up a small canyon, a couple of switchbacks, before winding round into the shade, coming out at a small outcrop, with the Watchman mountain towering above us. We'd left it a little late, but got there just in time to catch the sun set behind the mountains opposite us.

We hiked back down as the sun illuminated the peaks, the dark shadows rising up the hills fast. Dead trees abound - great for silhouettes. 

When we got back to Springdale we popped in to the Zion Canyon Brewing Company pub, hoping to try some of the local brews. The woman on the door explained that they were full, there was a 20-minute wait for a table, and that under Utah law you can't drink without having food, so we'd have to wait 20 minutes even to get a drink. Seemed a bit useless, given that it was supposed to be a brew pub. Not wanting to wait we headed home and then back out for dinner later to Wildcat Willies, where we tried a flight of the local beers. Draft beer in Utah can be no stronger than 4%, although bottled stuff can be. We stuck to the draft, which was rather tasteless and watery, especially having recently drunk the delicious 8% Crank Yankee IPA! We'd bought some beers by the Sleepy Dog Brewing based in Tempe, Arizona in a supermarket in Kanab so headed home and enjoyed a couple of those on the balcony under the stars. The neighbours downstairs were still smoking dope, and the smell continued to waft up, together with their giggles.

When it got a bit chilly we headed in, but I set my tripod up with the intervalometer on to take a series of star trail shots. I programmed it to take 30 shots, each lasting 2 minutes, remembering again to take the black shot at the end to get rid of the noise. Intermittently I'd check outside to see if it was still working. I quite liked the result, except for a couple of annoying aeroplane trails across the stars. The software let me take out the frames containing the planes, which left some breaks in the trails, but I think it looks better without them.

The following morning we set off to do a hike in the Narrows - a long, narrow, windy canyon at the end of the Zion Canyon road, which involves wading through the Virgin River. The choice was between that and Angel's Landing, which would have had fantastic views, but it was way too hot and that hike involved walking along an exposed ridge with little shade. The Narrows hike sounded unique (and was in the shade, mostly) so we plumped for that. We stopped off in one of the outdoor gear shops and rented special shoes, neoprene socks and a stick - all necessities for hiking through a river, which can be thigh-deep. We took the shuttle bus from the visitor centre, on which there was a recording of information about the park, its geology, history, etc. We got out at the furthest-away stop, Temple of Sinawava, and started up the Virgin River trail - there's an easy, flat paved trail to the Narrows trailhead, along which the less adventurous walk before returning to the bus.

The atmosphere in the Narrows was fantastic. It wasn't packed, but we were rarely alone. People hiked with their kids, some kitted out in full waterproof suits. It was such good fun, which is not something I usually think about hikes. We walked along sandy or rocky beaches, then waded through sections of the river to reach other banks. On the way up the canyon we stepped carefully, trying not to get water over our knees (I was wearing hiking trousers rolled up over my knee). On the way back we couldn't care less and swished right through deeper bits - the material dried off quickly. We took a little detour up the Orderville Canyon to the east, but soon the water became deeper (boys were swimming), so we turned round and headed back up into the main canyon. Most of the hike was in the shade, but from time to time the sunlight would reach the ground giving us a warm break. Some of the rocks at the edge of the river were illuminated by reflected sun and glowed gold. Photography was challenging, with a huge dynamic range of light conditions, although mainly just pretty dark! Occasionally I'd stop and take a few shots on the lightweight tripod I was carrying, but mainly I just pushed up the ISO and hoped for the best.



We got to the end of a section that is called "Wall Street" and turned around. In the last section the water was so deep that even our underwear got wet! At that point others said that it only got deeper, so it seemed like a good place to head back. It was one of the most enjoyable hikes I've ever done, but it was nice to get out of the water, take off the dripping socks and shoes, dry off and put on flipflops for the pleasant walk alongside the river under the cottonwood trees. Annoyingly I left a Snickers bar on the wall when I changed my shoes - would've been a nice reward for our hard work!

We got back to the bus stop at about 4pm - we'd been hiking for about 5 and a half hours. The sun was still high in the sky as we passed the Court of the Patriarchs and the Great White Throne, one of the largest monoliths (free-standing rocks) in the world.

We stopped off at the Zion Canyon Brewpub and managed to get a table outside immediately this time. We tried a few of their beers, but again were disappointed with the lack of oomph with the 4%ers. We only had to order one item of food between us in order to get beer, so we had some disappointing fries. The waiter told us that they were licensed to sell stronger beer in bottles, but just chose not too, which again seemed strange for a brew pub. It was all a bit disappointing! We headed home to watch sunset from the balcony instead, accompanied by a couple of Wasatch Beer's Polygamy Porters we'd picked up in Kanab (just love the name and the slogans - "Why have just one?" and "Bring some home to the wives" - and in spite of being only 4% they still have a bit of flavour to them). The rocks glowed an incredible orangey-red, just like the Totem Pole and Mittens had in Monument Valley.

We wandered up to the Zion Pizza & Noodle Co, located in an old church, where we sampled some much more agreeable strong Utah bottled beers (from Epic Brewing) and ate some reasonably tasty pasta and pizza, the remains of which would be our packed lunch the following day. We had a long drive ahead of us (to Moab), so we had an early night - I didn't have the energy to try out any more star shots.

Zion is definitely a park to return to; I can see why many people say that it's their favourite national park in Utah, or even the US. We only touched the surface - there's other sections accessible from the east too. Next time I'll have to try the Angel's Landing hike, but I'll have to revisit the Narrows as it's such fun, so at least 3 days will be necessary!

Next stop: Moab

27 Oct 2014

US Road-trip - Antelope Canyon & Horseshoe Bend, Arizona

I was kind of dreading Antelope Canyon. As a photographer, you cannot possibly pass through Page and not visit it, as it is too much of an iconic photographic location to ignore. Its beauty and proximity to the Grand Canyon have also placed it firmly on the tourist trail of northern Arizona. I knew that visiting it would not be a terribly enjoyable experience, given its popularity with tourists and photographers - all the reviews I'd read about it mentioned the dreadful crowds, but also that it was beautiful and unmissable at the same time.

I had researched the various ways to visit the place, which was an effort in itself, and had learned that the best option (or rather, the least bad) would be to get the photographer's permit for Lower Antelope Canyon, which entitles you to two hours to wander through the narrow canyon, without needing to be accompanied by a guide or on a tour. For this you must each carry a DSLR and a tripod and pay $50 (about $22 more than the regular guided tour). This sounded pretty perfect for me. If I'd wanted to go to Upper Antelope Canyon (the one with the usually over-exposed light-shafts) and take my tripod, then I would have paid more like $150 for a photographers tour, and my husband would have had to have gone on a normal tour (also about $50). This way, we paid the $50 each, my husband got to pretend to be a photographer by carrying my spare equipment (he lost his interest in photography a few years back), and we got to wander around at our own pace. The lower canyon has narrow metal staircases to climb down, which we hoped would put off a certain number of potential visitors.

The decision having been made to visit the Lower Antelope Canyon, then, we rocked up at 11 o'clock on a sunny Saturday morning, having driven the short distance from Monument Valley. If there's any chance of rain in the region the canyon can be closed, as it is at risk from flash floods, but this was not an issue on the day we visited. As expected, 11 am on a Saturday, even in the slightly off-season early October, is not a great time to visit. There are two operators based in the lower canyon, each sending down a group of about 15 people every 15 minutes or so, so there's a constant flow of new arrivals in the canyon. We had to walk to the canyon entrance with a group, but after that we were on our own.

As we waited at the top of the first ladder that takes you down into the canyon we could hear the chattering from people inside. We didn't have to wait for the group at the top, so climbed down into the narrow canyon. A few people were hanging around in the small chamber at the foot of the ladder. I moved on a little and tried to set my tripod up to take a few shots of people coming down the ladder, but soon realised that this wasn't going to be easy. No shot was going to be easy given the lack of space. And we were never going to be "on our own"- perhaps one might be if one visited at 3pm on a Tuesday in late January.

We spent the next hour and a half basically perched in slight recesses and nooks, waiting for tour groups and other photographers to go past, trying to find a little space and peace. It didn't really happen. Most shots I took were extremely rushed, and pointed upwards to avoid the inclusion of people wandering through. I wanted a couple of shots with people in, to give it a bit of scale, but not all the time, the whole way through. There was no opportunity for actually looking around and surveying the scene to find the most attractive composition. Tour guides instructed tourists where to point their camera in order to get the same shot as everyone else. We managed one corny self-portrait, standing in a hole that everyone posed in, taken using the self-timer.

At the hole we passed a Chinese photographer who didn't have much concept of personal space, waiting, moving aside, or taking it in turns to capture interesting views. When he wasn't shooting he carried his camera at the end of the tripod with the tripod over one shoulder, nearly hitting the camera against other people or the walls of the canyon. He didn't seem to be aware that he might not only damage his camera, but also make nasty scrapes along the soft sandstone walls (or someone's head!).

For the second half of our allotted time I gave up using the tripod and just pushed up the ISO and opened the aperture wider, neither of which were ideal (I didn't want grainy shots of the beautiful twisted walls and I wanted a good strong depth of field). But I couldn't bear the pain involved in trying to get steady, clear, deep shots and the time they took, with all the other people continuously moving through. Exposure was hard enough with the huge variety of available light, with little at the bottom and extreme brightness towards the top of the canyon, but the crowds just made it worse. I used a circular polarising filter to change the reflection of the light, but this required even longer shutter speeds. The image stabiliser on the new lens helped, but it was still challenging to get a decent shot.

We actually left the canyon before our time was up - it just wasn't an enjoyable experience, in spite of the amazing sculpted walls. We didn't need to worry about being late (they charge an additional $20 for every 20 minutes late you return the pass). My husband was definitely relieved to be out of there - he'd just stood around a bit aimlessly while I desperately tried to take a clean shot.

Feeling slightly shell-shocked by the whole experience, we drove on into Page, where we were staying in a rather characterless motel in the centre of the town. Just up from the motel we ate in an open-air Texas BBQ place, washed down by a well-earned Sierra Nevade IPA, before heading back to rest for a couple of hours. The wifi was decent enough, so I managed to download some star-stacking software and played around with my Monument Valley night shots until it was time to head out for sunset.

I was also slightly dreading visiting Horseshoe Bend too. It's another iconic location that I've seen many photographs of, and I knew it would also be busy with the same tourists that had been crammed into the slot canyons during the day. It was another must-visit place, though, with an almost 360 degree, horseshoe-shaped meander of the Colorado River, set down at the bottom of a deep canyon, with an almost-island-like hill sticking up in the middle of the bend. We drove the couple of miles up there from Page, parked in the already-packed car park and wandered up the short trail to the edge of the canyon. My husband had a brief look down into the canyon but then sat and read again, away from the edge. I found a couple of different spots along the cliff from where I watched the sun soon disappear below the horizon behind the bend. It wasn't nearly as scary as some of the reports I'd read by previous visitors. Yes, we were perched on the edge of a tall, steep cliff, but you didn't have to get right to the edge to look down. People do like to exaggerate!

Like Antelope Canyon earlier it was teeming with people, including huge numbers of loud Chinese tourists and photographers; there was a constant rabble, interspersed with sudden cackles of laughter or mock screams as people peered over the edge. At one point one woman squeezed next to me and just missed hitting my tripod and camera with her backpack by an inch (I had my hand in front of the camera shielding it just in case she had knocked it). It wasn't as if the cliff-top was short of space for seeing the bend, but she clearly fancied my viewing spot. It didn't make for a relaxing sunset-viewing experience, that's for sure. The cloudless sky prevented a spectacular sunset, but it was still a striking view. Immediately after the sun had dipped below the horizon the rock turned from an orangey-red hue to a pale magenta one. The hoards quickly dispersed, scurrying away like ants, eager to get back to town for the next feeding time, no doubt. I stayed for a while, watching boats come around the bend on the river leaving graceful trails in the glowing glassy blue water. Some people were camping down on the shore - I could just make out some tiny canoes and the dots of people pottering about camp; I think I would have preferred being down there with them.

Eventually we headed back to the motel, where we drank cheap Californian champagne out of plastic cups to belatedly celebrate our wedding anniversary (they wouldn't make an exception and give us a couple of real glasses from the bar). We tried to eat in the attached Indian & Thai restaurant, but it closed at 9, so we went to a nearby Mexican restaurant and ate more mushy food. It had been a strange day, starting with playing chicken in the road with Chinese photographers overlooking Monument Valley, struggling to squeeze through the crowded Lower Antelope Canyon with the masses and still hope to come out with a few decent shots, finished off with a cloudless sunset at Horseshoe Bend perched at the top of a huge cliff, being nearly jostled by noisy people desperate to get their shot.

We left Page the following morning on our way to Zion; if I ever return it'll be off-season, mid-week, and perhaps I'll venture down to the Colorado River to see the geological wonders from a different perspective. I won't be rushing back, though. I couldn't have not visited either of the two sights, given the route we were taking, but I can't say either of us particularly enjoyed the place!

Next stop: Zion National Park, Utah

26 Oct 2014

US Road-trip - Monument Valley

For some reason, I wasn't expecting to really like Monument Valley. I'm not sure why, but think it's mainly because it seemed a bit clich├ęd; I'd seen so many photos and it was in hundreds of movies (at least 100, it turns out). It was on our route, though, so I thought I'd give it the benefit of the doubt.

I booked us to stay for two nights in a brand new cabin at The View, the only accommodation option in the park (which is on Navajo land; it's not a US National Park). All of the hotel rooms had been booked up, and it was only by chance that I clicked through to the camping website and discovered that I could book a cabin there, and that they still had availability. The cabins overlook the Mittens, iconic buttes - each with a separate "thumb". I'd read a few reviews and was advised to get one at the front, as the ones at the back overlooked the ones at the front. I emailed my preference, mentioning that we would be spending our wedding anniversary there, and was told that allocation worked on a first-come-first-serve basis. As a result, I was keen to get there as early as possible, hoping to nab a cabin with a good view.

We rushed across from Bisti, giving Four Corners a miss (who cares about standing on the edge of four states? - just seemed like a tourist-trap to me), arriving at 3.30pm, having half an hour before the official check-in time. The approach took us down the road that I've seen in hundreds of photos - the road going downhill with buttes on either side. We pulled over briefly for me to get a shot near the Mile 13 mile-post, but the light was harsh (I'd have to return at sunrise).

On arrival at the hotel I was told that we had to check in near the cabins themselves, so down the hill we went. It turns out that there wasn't a great deal of choice of cabins at all - many of them were occupied already by people staying multiple nights. We had a choice of two with views - Number 3 at the back, with no cabin in front, and Number 19 at the front, but with a flat unnatural area just outside; we chose Number 3 (which had been allocated to us originally) as I liked the angle of the mittens nestled together. The view was indeed spectacular, and I spent quite some time on the balcony, capturing the mittens, in various different light. The cabin itself was comfortable, but for some reason we couldn't fathom, they'd kitted it out with a proper kitchen but not one single item of crockery or cutlery (next to the coffee percolater were a couple of polystyrene cups and a plastic sachet with sugar, a tissue and a stirrer). I have since written to them suggesting that they take a little trip to the nearest Ikea or Home Depot! The other problem was the lack of wifi - some cabins had it, but it was patchy and didn't go very far. We could get it out the back, at the car, and occasionally in the bedroom, but generally there was none. Again, it was if they didn't want to pay for more routers - more cutting corners, resulting in a niggling feeling of things not being quite perfect.

Apart from the lack of kitchen accessories and rubbish wifi, though, the cabin and our time there was lovely. We relaxed on our balcony later on, watching the mittens and other distant mesas and buttes, as well as the other cabins, glow more and more orange as the sun set behind us. We shared our last remaining Eddyline Crank Yanker IPA out of plastic cups, toasting our 4th wedding anniversary (Navajo lands are dry, and a quick stop in a supermarket in Shiprock had confirmed this - not a drop in sight!).

The spectacle of the earth's shadow after the sun had set was equally stunning - the colours of the sky so ethereal, and the buttes seemed to light up and glow once again.

Later on we walked up to the hotel and ate dinner in the restaurant there - trying their fry bread and "famous" stew; it was okay, but nothing special. The portions of the bread were, as usual, enormous, but the stew was little more than a relatively tasty thin broth with a few bits of chicken in it.

That night I tried my hand at a bit of night photography. It wasn't too cold and I had enough outdoor gear to be outside for hours quite happily. I tried a few long exposures to capture star trails, and a few wide-angle portrait shots to capture the milky way (which was only just visible owing to the presence of a nearly-full and very bright moon). I was using my new 16-35mm lens, but realised that even this wasn't quite wide enough to capture the milky way, and also that it resulted in a huge amount of distortion in anything at the edges in the foreground. I was relatively happy with the results for a first attempt. Had I been further up the hill, with the line of photographers we passed on our way back from dinner, I could have captured the milky way over the mittens, but I was being a bit lazy and so had to make do with a couple of mesas to the north as the foreground interest.

I didn't have any star-stacking software, so couldn't see the results of the amalgamation of a series of 5-second shots I took. Once I got to Page and had some decent wifi I was able to download some software and have a look at the results. I'd made the mistake of not taking a black shot at the end, which the software then uses to remove the dead and hot pixels which you get when the camera's hot from long exposures. As a result, I had to go through and crop them all out (and there were a lot!). I used photoshop to try to correct the barrel distortion.

Having got up early to go down to Bisti we were pretty tired, so headed to bed early. I set my alarm so I could get up before sunrise - at least I didn't have to go very far (to the other side of the cabin and onto the balcony). I'd worked out where the sun would come up (from the photographer's ephemeris), just to the south of the east (far) Mitten. Sunrise was just after 7.15 am, but I wanted to catch the dawn sky beforehand. With the completely clear weather there wasn't much chance of particularly interesting skies, but I was fairly pleased with the view from my balcony as I set up my cameras and tripods - I was using both to capture the view with different focal lengths.

This was the view as I opened the door:

I looked to my right and saw other guests out on balconies, a few with tripods, others resting their cameras on the wooden railings. Eventually the sun peaked above the horizon. The glare was hard to avoid, given the sun was directly in front, so I decided to embrace it!

Most shots I'd seen taken from this place were taken up at the viewing platform of the hotel, where the distance between each of the mittens and the larger Merrick butte to the right were even; I liked the angle that the mittens sat together from my cabin, with the further one almost like a small but lower mirror image of the closer one.

We solved the crockery conundrum (we'd bought cereal and milk to eat there!) by using a tupperware box that some ham had come in, with plastic spoons donated by our equally-bemused German neighbours. We sat on the balcony, taking it in turns to eat our cereal, drinking tea out of polystyrene cups (made using hot water that had passed through the coffee machine - when will they start using kettles in the US?!). It was quite blissful. Eventually we got up and headed down hill on the Wildcat Trail, a 3.5 mile loop around the nearest mitten; I was glad for the new baseball cap as the sun was harsh. The hike was a pleasant one, along well-defined trails with pretty flowers and sage brush shrubs everywhere, and the odd photogenic sand dune. It was midday, so the light wasn't great, and the deep blue skies looked a bit unreal.

Similar to the one we'd seen on the Bear Creek Trail in Telluride, we passed a cairn garden, where passers-by had built their own little cairns. Again, I placed a small rock on the top of another - my little mark.

We got back to the cabin and relaxed for a while, waiting for the long sunset tour we'd booked earlier with one of the tour operators in the car-park of the visitor centre. We decided it was worth the extra $10 each to get an extra hour and to be out at sunset. We had the choice of an enclosed 4WD or an open-sided vehicle; we chose the latter, as it seemed a bit of a better way to see the surroundings. I packed my cameras in plastic bags, and only got them out when we stopped - I didn't want stray sand somehow working its way inside my beloved Canons!

The beginning of the trail is open to the public with 4WDs, so was quite busy. The driver didn't say much, just ferried us from viewpoint to viewpoint. The sandstone structures were already taking a more orange hue than their browny-red hue that shows in the midday light. John Ford's Point was bustling with Italian tourists, all keen to get photos of them with their hands wide in the air (everyone seems to do this, everywhere, when they're not taking selfies, that is). I let a rare shot of myself be taken by my husband, just to prove that I was there!

The tour continued, further into the valley, away from the majority of the crowds. Some of the scenery reminded by of the backside of Ayer's Rock - smooth red rock with eroded holes scattered across the surface - it wasn't just buttes and mesas.

The driver stopped from time to time, stuck his head out of the cab window and said "good photo here" and gestured out at the view. For most of these the views weren't the ones I would have chosen to capture, and often we drove past places that I definitely would have stopped at to photograph, had I been driving - but hey ho, that's the deal with a tour! And later on he redeemed himself...

We stopped at a few massive arches but the light was generally not that great. I played around with the circular polarising filter, which helped reduce some of the reflection on the red rock. This was especially helpful for photographing the petroglyphs.

As we drove further into valley the roads became sandier and hillier - in some places it seemed as if we were the first ever visitors! It was nice to get away from it all and see a bit more of the enormous, varied valley.

The light was beginning to fade, with the red rocks becoming more orange by the minute. One place I particularly wanted to visit was the Totem Pole, a huge rock spire left from an eroded butte. I'd seen pictures of it with beautiful rippled sand in the foreground, and hoped that we would get that close. We drove to a viewpoint, with the pole seemingly miles away. Even with the zoom lens on the 60D it still seemed too far away. We drove away and I felt disappointed that that might be the closest we got. Fortunately I was wrong. We meandered through sandy tracks, up some very steep and bumpy bits, with the Totem Pole always a bit in front of us and to our right. Eventually the driver took a right hand turn that said "residents only" and soon after he pulled off the track and parked. He beckoned for us to go with him, so we set off across the scrubby desert.

I felt a little nervous, oddly, perhaps because we were in the middle of nowhere with a stranger, and I was laden with expensive camera equipment. What did I expect? That he was taking us somewhere to be robbed by bandits? I haven't even watched any of the many movies set there, so I could hardly blame it on watching too much TV. I was hoping that instead he was leading us to a patch of untouched sand. I stopped from time to time to photograph the Totem Pole, together with a few other spires nearby, which were now a beautiful soft orange colour. We continued for ages, a good ten minutes, perhaps more. Eventually we reached our goal - not, thankfully, a group of bandits, but the hoped-for untouched sand dunes, ripples accentuated in the low sun. It was absolutely spectacular and I felt my face beaming! We wandered along the edge of it, the guide suggesting good spots for photographs. Now I was feeling very grateful to him for bringing us there, off the official tourist roads, to this special, unspoiled place. I could have spent longer there, but we soon turned around and headed back to the car. Even without the ripples, the scenery was out of this world.

We drove to a last viewing point (Artist's Point) to catch the end of the sunset - a tiny bit of last light on the buttes and mesas back where we started before driving back to The View. It was a brilliant trip, mainly because of the divine rippled dunes!

The day was far from over. We drove up to Goulding's Lodge (a few miles away over in Utah!) for dinner before heading back home for my second attempt at astro-photography. I finally got out the intervalometer that I've carried twice to Iceland but haven't used, and set it up to capture five ten-minute exposures. I remembered to take the dark one at the end, with the same settings, the lens cap on, and the viewfinder covered by the rubber piece on the strap. The star trails worked okay, but I didn't particularly like the criss-cross of aeroplane lights that are inevitable (barely visible on a small photo). I used the 24-70mm lens this time, on f/2.8, to avoid distortion and focus in on the mittens. The moonlight helped to light up the mitten closest to me. I chatted to the Germans next door, who told me how amazingly dark the sky had been in the middle of the night the previous night - great for milky way capturing. I woke up to go to the loo at about 3 am and looked outside, but the stars weren't as bright as I'd hoped, so I went back to bed for a few hours.

Another early morning for me, as I dashed to Mile 13 to capture the approach road at sunrise. When I arrived there was a huddle of Chinese photographers with tripods, dashing into the road, back to the side when a car came, then huddling together again in the middle. I joined them, and eventually we moved further down the road, past a small squished ground squirrel that wouldn't have looked nice in the photos! The light gradually came, illuminating the buttes and mesas and the road that stretched out beyond us. As it got brighter, we all ditched the tripods which made the whole thing a lot easier, and we were able to squeeze a few of us at a time right in the middle spot of the road, some crouching down, the taller ones upright. "Car!" someone would shout and we'd run to the side again, giggling, eventually staying in the road for a little longer as the cars seemed to take ages to reach us (it's a very long straight section of the road). The group was from Guangzhou, but they spoke little English, so the conversation ended after the "where are you from?" question. I took lots of shots, but I think this one is my favourite, as it sums up my experience there.

I said my farewells to my new friends and drove down that iconic road back to the cabin. I stopped in at the administration office to pick up and pay for a commercial photography permit (usually you have to pay by post, by US cheque or money order, but they allowed me to pay in person, in cash, unlike the folks at Antelope Canyon who seem to want to make it impossible to get one if you're from outside the US...). Once that was done I drove back to the cabin, woke up my husband and we had our last breakfast on the balcony as the sun rose higher, taking turns to eat our Oatmeal Squares out of the tupperware container. When we arrived in Monument Valley forty-two hours earlier I'd had strangely low expectations, but I left feeling overwhelmed by the grandeur of the place. It wasn't just the rippled sand dunes and the glowing Totem Pole spire, it was the sheer scale of all of the massive sandstone structures, each eroded in a unique way. I could see why so many movie directors chose to set their films there. Quite monumental! Here is a montage of the views from the balcony at different times of day:

Next stop: Page, Arizona